Welcome to the second edition of Profiles in Service where we connect you with the organizations in Athens that are making a positive impact on our community everyday.
Tuesday night, I met with Tim Johnson, the Executive Director of Whatever It Takes. Whatever It Takes is an initiative through the Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens organization that works to connect schools, neighborhoods, community agencies, families and students together to provide a network of support for children from before they are born to when they finish post-secondary education. This network aims to meet the health, safety, and educational needs of all children so that they have all of the tools they need to be successful both during and after school.
We think that Whatever It Takes is one of Athens’ most effective organizations in engaging our community and providing support for poverty and education. We hope that you will check out their website and Facebook page and if you have extra time or resources that you will consider helping out Whatever It Takes.
What follows is a transcript of my discussion with Tim Johnson. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kyle: Tell me a little bit about Whatever It Takes and how it got started:
Tim: Whatever It Takes is an initiative of the Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens organization with the goal of the community doing whatever it takes for the children of Athens to be successful. That is a simple statement but not an easy achievement. It involves every sector of the community including the schools, the public agencies, the business community, the faith community and the most important partners: the families. It starts from before conception by encouraging future parents to wait until adulthood to become a parent and encouraging situations where ideally two parents supporting a child. It includes things like a healthy pregnancy and birth and support for early childhood development. From there it leads to Kindergarden through High School graduation and then on to education after high school whether it be a four-year college, technical college or on-the-job training.
All of this recognizes that all aspects of a child’s life determine lifelong success such as good health, a safe community to grow up in and growing up to become a contributing member of the community.
We do this by bringing together community partners who include schools, UGA, community agencies and parents. We look at what data tells us is happening to children in Athens, where we need to focus our efforts to improve, what research tells us is effective in finding a solution and figuring out how to meet our goals. For the most part, there have not been many new resources coming into the community. However, the numbers are improving pretty significantly. When we started the Family Connection partnership, teen pregnancy was identified as a top priority. Through a lot of intentional focus, we have reduced teen pregnancy rates by 65%. In the late 1990s, we had one of the highest rates of substantiated child abuse and neglect in the state of Georgia. In fact, our rate was about 56 per 1000 children being abused or neglected compared to a state rate of about 18 per 1000. We convened a summit on child abuse and 192 people spent two days discussing solutions. Fifteen initiatives came out of that conference and contributed to a steep decline in abuse rates from the late 1990s through the mid 2000s. In 2008, the rates of abuse and neglect in Clarke County were actually below the state rate. Today’s rate is 87% lower than it was 12 years ago. Some of our local policies were also implemented state-wide.
Another area is our high school graduation rate. About 10 years ago, our four-year high school graduation rate was about 50%. Last year’s rate was just over 70%. This was the first year that we had been above the state average. Going further down, our third grade reading level (the point where you stop learning to read and start reading to learn) has gone from 60% of students being at or above grade level to 87%. For minority and low income students the increase has been even more dramatic.
This reduction of the achievement gap is the largest of any system in the state of Georgia. We have also gotten more recognition for what we have done. President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods Initiative included over 900 petitions and about 340 proposals. Clarke County had the third-highest score in the country on their proposal.
We still have a long way to go though. In a University town, we should be very close to 100% on our graduation rates.
Kyle: Why do work in the communities and build partnerships outside the school structure? What makes this work more effective than working exclusively within schools?
Tim: Certainly the school district is a major player in helping students be successful, but there are things that happen outside the classroom that affect a student’s success. If a child saw his mother being abused the night before, he will not be able to concentrate in class. If a child has been abused, she will not be able to concentrate. Recognizing that all those outside factors impact what happens in the classroom makes it necessary for our program to operate across agencies and across sectors in the entire community. That is the only way to be successful.
The issues are really the same for high-poverty kids as it is for middle and high income children in that all of these issues impact a child’s success in school. Families with better resources are more able to meet these needs through their own support systems. When a child is in a family without many resources grows up in a community also lacking those resources then it takes more support outside the classroom to meet those needs.
I really think that a significant part of our philosophy is that it is not only about providing that child or family with what they need. It is also about enabling that child and family to provide support to their peers in the community. The families are important partners. The way a lot of other organizations do things is even when they recognize the need for input from the people that they are working with, it is traditionally been, at best, seeking a hearing and then going back to make their own decision. In our case, our commitment is that this is a partnership. The family representatives are at the same table as the superintendent, the mayor and all the other organizational representatives involved because they bring a unique and vital expertise from their perspective. All perspectives are necessary for success. All of the leaders within our organization recognize the need to look for expertise from all of the stakeholders.
Kyle: What collaboration do you think has been the most impactful?
Tim: Probably the area where we will have the greatest long-term impact is with the early learning initiatives. When we started Family Connection, the school district did not have any programs for children younger than Kindergarden (aside from a federally mandated and funded special education program). We piloted the first Pre-K model and ours was the most effective. When the lottery passed to fund statewide Pre-K, our model was chosen for implementation. We also brought Early Head Start to the area. Early Head Start works with mom when she is pregnant and works with the child until the child is three. Unlike in other communities, we were able to build these programs as a part of the school district itself so that there is support from birth through high school graduation. In fact, an official from the federal government told us that we had the strongest school-based early learning program that he had seen anywhere in the United States.
Kyle: What are the challenges you face in running this organization?
Tim: The two major challenges are coordinating all of the moving parts and maintaining resources. Our staff is very limited, so the agencies, the families and all the people who are involved are doing most of the work. We do most of the facilitating and keeping that organized is a constant struggle. It has to be very self-sustaining and not imposed.
The other obvious difficulty is resources. When we got the Promise Neighborhood recognition, we received a $500,000 grant for planning. Their commitment had been that that $500,000 was for planning and then the federal government would invest $10 million per year for 10 years in implementing those plans. The sum of the grant over the life of the program was $100,500,000. Unfortunately for us, a new Congress arrived and gutted the funding for that implementation. We didn’t get any of that $10 million per year and only a fraction of the Promise Neighborhoods got any funding at all. So to continue to coordinate that work without the staffing that we need is also a challenge. The school district has been showing remarkable improvements, but state funding has gone down. Public health has been showing great work in addressing the issue of teen pregnancy, but the state reduced funding of teen pregnancy prevention initiatives in our ten-county public health region. The Athens-Clarke County government is donating funds for clinics and Clarke County Schools are doing the sex-ed, but when the funding goes away it is difficult to implement the programs.
Kyle: Could you see the Whatever It Takes model going statewide?
Tim: Yes, the Family Connection model is in all 159 Georgia counties and receives a little bit of state funding. This model is very similar to the Whatever It Takes model where we use data driven solutions to address community needs. The challenge is that while the state is providing some funding ($45,000 per year to each county), we aren’t getting enough funding to meet our needs.
Kyle: What is the best way for people in Athens to get involved with your organization?
Tim: We work through strategic action teams. There is an early learning team, a K-12 team, a post-secondary and career team, a neighborhood engagement team, a safety and wellness team and probably some I’m leaving out. Each one of those is composed of organizations and concerned individuals. Anyone can get involved in these through our website and there is always a seat at the table for anyone that wants to be involved. For people that are more interested in one-on-one work like mentoring there are ways to get involved in that as well.
Kyle: What is your final message from Whatever it Takes?
Tim: I think our biggest message is that people hear a lot of negative news about what happens in our schools and with our children, but we have shown that we have great schools that are continuing to get better. We have committed organizations that are doing great work, and we are showing results. Things are getting better across all factors that are measured by the state and federal government. This is happening because people are making it happen. The more people get involved, the better the outcomes will be for our children and our whole community. This is important because our children are our future.